Hemas forges ahead as a truly Sri Lankan company

Our focus is only on talent, which transcends racial and religious barriers: CEO Enderby

By Uwin Lugoda

Sri Lanka is home to a number of diverse communities. These communities work hand in hand in upholding a delicate balance that helps the country grow, both in societal as well as economic standpoints. However, due to the recent communal disharmony that took place in the country, parts of these communities splintered, affecting the entirety of the country’s economy and amity at different levels.

This divide resulted in the boycotting and vandalising of certain brands and companies based on factors such as ethnicity, while on the other hand, allegations of favouritism were levelled against certain other communities. As witnessed by a nation, this communal disharmony was an indirect consequence of the tragic Easter Sunday attack carried out by a group of extremist terrorists. The boycotting began with Muslim-owned business and then spread to companies “suspected” of favouring the Muslim community. Hemas Holdings PLC is one such company that has been plagued by allegations of favouritism.

One of Sri Lanka’s largest conglomerates, Hemas is engaged in FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), healthcare, transportation and logistics, leisure and travel, and aviation sectors. The company currently employs over 8,000 personnel from different backgrounds.

Diversity, the greatest asset
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, Hemas Holdings Chief Executive Officer Steven Enderby refuted the allegations saying those have nothing to do with the business in which he has been a part of for the last six years and subjects such as religion, ethnicity, or community have never being featured in any of their conversations.

“With regard to recruiting people, all I know is that it’s really hard to attract the best-quality talent in the market. I have no personal view on what community they come from or what religious beliefs they hold. They are entirely up to that individual and they personal to them. These aspects don’t even cross my mind. So I think when you hear some of these allegations, to be honest, it’s quite difficult to process; it’s completely different to what Hemas is like or stand by as a company,” he explained.
Enderby described Hemas as a secular business encompassing great values and an eye for performance. He stated that, given the current sensitive situation in the country, he understands how there could be certain insinuations. However, he asserted that it was not reflective of Hemas in any way.

The solid, robust, and consistent values of the company reflect on how they treat their stakeholders – whether they are government officials, customers, distributors, suppliers, or employees. He further explained that with unity at its core, along with many other internal values, everything else gets sorted on its own.

The allegations have led to an impact on the company’s performance as a whole, explained Enderby. This is especially the case in certain areas where there have been social media campaigns on the subject, affecting the functioning of hospitals under the Hemas banner. Nevertheless, as Enderby assured, merely speaking with the staff at these hospitals – including its doctors and nurses – would instantly prove these accusations false.

“If you talk to the doctors or other staff members who work within our hospitals, they will assure you how completely untrue these accusations are. If your values are right and if they are consistent and coherent, you can solve most of the problems in life,” he said, adding that similarly, when one’s values lose priority or when people look to take short cuts, they end up with more and more problems.

He explained that to him, an organisation is stronger in its diversity which allows it to draw scores of different perspectives, opinions, and experiences for the betterment of both the company and its employees, and pointed out that Hemas has shared these core values and a concern for the community throughout its 70 years of business, which ultimately led the brand to its immense success.

“The ability to draw talent for a wider range of experiences, skills, characteristics, and cultures is a real strength. We really believe in diversity, and I think it’s somewhat the core strength for any business.”

Enderby explained that Hemas has been in the forefront of promoting diversity in all its forms, including its many efforts to promote gender balance in the workplace. He went on to state that the organisation is highly conscious about working on getting its gender ratio balanced, as the it currently stands disproportionately male to female.
He said the company also focuses on employing individuals with disabilities, in an effort to help them find jobs which would otherwise be tremendously difficult.

“Naturally, I don’t consider one’s ethnicity or religion when promoting diversity within the organisation. In fact, I believe that in a fairly diverse environment like Sri Lanka, diversity promotes itself, and even a thought of changing that wouldn’t ever cross my mind. I recruit the best people I could possibly find for the company, although it may be as hard as it sounds, but if one was to take alternative routes, they would only be making life more difficult for themselves,” he explained.

Giving back to society
Hemas as a company has been in the forefront of promoting unity, both internally as well as externally. In terms of its corporate social responsibility (CSR), the company opened around 52 Pryawara preschools across the country. Pryawara is a project initiated in 2002 with Hemas’ vision of enriching lives at its core. The project saw the construction of several preschools around the country in partnership with the Children’s Secretariat of the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs. The programme aims at enriching the lives of underprivileged children, who are part of the less fortunate communities in Sri Lanka, by focusing on key aspects within the framework of Early Childhood Care and Development in Sri Lanka.

The company’s CSR efforts are further emphasised by their launch of AYATI, the National Centre for Excellence for Children with Disabilities in Sri Lanka. The project, which is a learning centre for children with learning disabilities, is carried out together with the University of Kelaniya and MAS Holdings.

“As an organisation, we believe that it is critical to recognise that we are part of all these communities. So, whether we organise sponsorship events with local temples or engage in CSR initiatives, we take it very seriously because it is one of the key factors which defines who we are and what we do,” shared Enderby.
According to Enderby, Hemas takes their role in social responsibility a step further by enriching the communities around its factories, hotels, and hospitals, with a variety of social programmes being organised to create awareness. He went on to state that what they do is largely appreciated by these communities, adding: “We see sincere appreciation in them that a corporate entity is prepared to serve their communities, and I think many people don’t expect it.”

Speaking of the response from the workforce, Enderby stated that the staff enjoys all the programmes conducted by the company. He attributes this to the remarkable compassion within Sri Lankan society, which in turn has made it easier for Hemas to have people engaged in all these projects.

“Everybody voluntarily agrees to help, saying things like ‘yes, we want to help’, ‘we want to be involved’, or ‘we want to see how we can make a difference’. We are a part of Hemas not just because it’s a job, but because we share the same great values Hemas hold and we see what it offers the community as a whole.”
In this light, Enderby also shared that he is no stranger to communal differences, having being brought up in Ireland, where he witnessed the consequences of communal division and destruction between two communities.

Hemas recently took the Pledge of Unity initiated by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC), along with over 300 fellow corporates. The pledge was taken in all three languages on 21 May, exactly one month after the attacks, at the Atrium of Cinnamon Grand Hotel, one of the hotels targeted in the attacks.
Enderby commended this initiative and said that seeing businesses and leaders committing to live with values like unity and respecting diversity is beautiful.

“We are only going to be stronger if we all work together to build something that is really special. At its core, Hemas is a Sri Lankan business, and one of the things that excite me about building a Sri Lankan business is that we got some hard work to do to compete with some of the world’s leading companies, and we have been doing that across many different sectors. So divide and disharmony to me would be a disaster. We’ve got to build a great Sri Lankan business, alongside great Sri Lankan brands that take on the best in the world.”

Photo by Saman Abesiriwardana